As Trump’s Poll Numbers Fall, Republicans are Eyeing the Exits—but Still Afraid to Act

by Mark Sumner –

While the United States has bounced through the pinball machine of scandals both big and bigger— including a national security adviser ousted for connections to Russia and an FBI director fired for looking into connections to Russia—one of the consistent factors has been Republican cowardice. No matter if Trump was showing off the nuclear football at Mar-a-Lago or inviting murderous autocratic dictators to the White House, you could always count on House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to deliver a round of ringing silence or soupy support.

Because, until now at least, Republicans have weighed their odds and decided that going along with Trump was their best route to the GOP holy grail: tax breaks for billionaires. After all, a few randomly fired missiles, a threat of nuclear war here, a little wrecking of national policy in exchange for some ego boost (or building permits, or trademarks, or …)—all of that is peanuts if it means killing the inheritance tax. But the latest round of Trump insanity combined with Trump’s crashing poll numbers may have worked a miracle. It may have finally allowed a few Republican senators to shuffle around in the closet and locate their spines.

Senate Republicans, increasingly unnerved by President Trump’s volatility and unpopularity, are starting to show signs of breaking away from him as they try to forge a more traditional Republican agenda and protect their political fortunes.

Don’t be deceived—if it wasn’t for the “unpopularity” part of that statement, Trump could be holding White House puppy roasts. But now that Trump is both erratic and a drag on the party, some Republicans are finally starting to have second thoughts about handing the keys to the guy with the crazy wig. They still have their top priorities, including tax breaks for billionaires and boosting insurance company bottom lines. They just don’t know if Trump is the one to deliver.

The question is whether this cluster of Republicans will do more than voice a little discomfort with Trump and actually do something.

During the campaign, there were plenty of Republicans—and not just Trump’s opponents—willing to point out the dangers of the orange menace. There were several different flavors of NeverTrumps and AnyoneButTrumps, all of them willing to spar with Trump’s statements. But once Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-black, anti-science, anti-sense positions turned out to have enough electoral votes to swing the election, that discomfort vanished in a warm bowl of Republican “shut-up-he’s-talking-tax-cuts.”

So far, Republicans have refrained from bucking the president en masse, in part to avoid undermining their intense push to put health care and tax bills on his desk this year. And the Republican leadership, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, remains behind Mr. Trump.

The names that are appearing in this list of Trump-grumblers include the usual suspects like Sens. Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have been willing to occasionally, sort of, kind of, disagree with the man who is using the White House to sell club memberships. But that doesn’t mean that they they’re about to vote against that Trump wants.

Two Republican senators who face potentially tough re-election fights next year — Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona — have been unabashed in their criticism of Mr. Trump and his administration, which they have clearly begun to view as a drag on their political prospects.

And that’s why they’ve … voted for everything and everyone Trump wanted.

Trump’s 30-something rating in the polls seems to be exactly enough to allow a few Republicans to be “critical,” so long as being critical requires no action at all. But no one should expect Republicans to start mulling impeachment. Not when every committee hearing still breaks down into Democrats talking about the subject of the hearing and Republicans still trying to find a way to blame President Obama for any issue.

“In Arizona, we grow them independent,” Mr. Flake said, noting the unpopularity in his state of Mr. Trump’s views on the border wall and Nafta. “I expect people want someone who will say, ‘I’m voting with Trump on the good stuff and standing up to him on the not good stuff.’”

It’s a safe bet that any vote on destroying health care for millions and dumping a huge new deficit on the country will turn out to be the “good stuff.” Anyone Trump nominates for a court opening? Good stuff. Anyone Trump picks for FBI director? Good stuff. Something that requires Flake to do nothing more than frown and declare his independence? That’s the bad stuff.

As for the people at the top …

Some Republicans, like Mr. Ryan, have preferred to keep the focus firmly on the good stuff. Mr. Ryan has remained in harmony with the president, last month calling him “a driven, hands-on leader, with the potential to become a truly transformational American figure.”

Just remember that Paul Ryan voluntarily rode this plane, all the way down.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos